24 January 2023
On The Myth of Normal by Gabor Maté
The past few days have been a disaster of the mind. No thought has been complete. No focus unfragmented. Nothing read in a single sitting. Nothing read for longer than five minutes at a time. Like a failed meditation became my every moment—focus on the breath, no the breath, no the breath, focus back on the breath…just…oh for the love of god, back to the breath...you didn’t even make it through a single full breath this time! Except replace “breath” with literally anything at all. Focus on To the Lighthouse. Nope. Focus on The Myth of Normal. Nope. Focus on writing Dad. No way, José. The best I could do was fractal poetry; reading, writing, posting. Everything in fits and starts, the only constant: doomscrolling.
Just the other day, I saw a post on IG:
"What do you think, is our culture toxic or are people in general toxic and predestined to create a toxic culture? 🤔...In this book The Myth of Normal Author Gabor Mate theorizes that the vast majority of our decline in mental and physical well-being is the result of an inherently toxic culture...The question I ask is... Is this normal human behavior, toxic or not? Is this the same culture that we would naturally recreate over and over again because this is just how we operate as a species?"
So I have to start here. When I first read this post, I got super defensive on Maté’s behalf. I’m always defensive at first, when I encounter perspectives divergent from my own, or perspectives that undermine my beliefs. Clearly, this is fairly common in our world, or this book wouldn’t exist in the first place. But, as always, I came around. The truth of the matter is that I had a similar thought. In my thirties, I read much of the Clan of the Cave Bear series by Jean M. Auel (gifted to me in hard copy at HS graduation by my mom’s life-partner, Jackie). Auel’s story is fiction, of course (it has to be), yet it does give some very logical insight into how our ancient ancestors might’ve lived/related to/with one another. The hunter-gatherers in Auel’s books were no more perfect than we are, today. There was toxicity. There were rank conflicts. There were major abandonment concerns (especially if the tribe member—even a child—did not meet tribal expectations). Again, this is fiction, yet it gives us some perspective: humanity is not perfect, nor was it ever.
So…I see where this IG commenter is coming from. Yet, my response to her is this: does it matter? Does it really matter whether we are predestined to such toxicity? I posit that our propensity for toxicity doesn’t matter at all; we are still equipped to identify such toxicity and overcome it. Moreover, I have concerns, myself, that Maté’s intent to change the world—rid the world of toxicity—is a pipe dream. We only have so much control over anything, right? In fact, we only have some control over the things within our smallest circles, it seems. Therefore, while I applaud Maté for aiming high, I choose to take his message with some moderation of expectations: I will work to improve my own lot and that of my children, but I will not shoulder the stress of responsibility for my culture, nation, government, etc., writ large. It’s just too much. Too overwhelming. To assume that would break me. Moving on.
I’d like to spend a few moments covering the following points from Maté’s book: provability, style, layout/structure, and overarching message/takeaway.
Of course, in the world of psychology and psychotherapy, there is no way to prove anything scientifically. These are social sciences and thus untested and untestable. How does Maté manage that concern? Throughout, Maté ties in a preponderance of evidence from case studies and research literature to support his claims—and I found them convincing. Perhaps I found them so convincing because, like Maté, I value pattern-recognition and intuition. When the stories, all so similar, begin to add up, a coherent story unfolds: trauma caused illness; resolving trauma heals illness. Perhaps it is also that my own personal experience of trauma, illness, and healing coincides with Maté’s theory that I found it so convincing. And convince is all Maté needs to do. We don’t need hard proofs, I think. We need explanations and hope. He provides that.
What Maté has compiled in this tome is accessible. While at moments Maté presents evidence from hard research, including some esoteric jargon in the footnotes, most of his writing comprises case studies and creative nonfiction (his own, his wife’s, his friends’, his patients’ stories, etc.). Because so much of this book was written in a narrative format, I found it easier to digest. This takes the subjective and presents it objectively; it makes theory reality. Via real-life examples, I was able to connect and apply Maté’s messages throughout to my own relationships (friendly, familiar, romantic), or the relationships of those around me. In fact, sometimes the narratives in this book grabbed my attention so wholly that I could not skim, which I might have preferred to do, in order to finally finish reading (it took me two months!).
I read this with my Dad and stepmom, Debbie. Their greatest concern was the digestibility of each chapter. The information in the book is not only dense, it also forces the reader to dive deep into their own psyche, their own relationships—and that shit is hard. Dad and Debbie’s take was that they could only read about one or two chapters per week because they needed time to process what they’d read before moving on. I agree with this assessment. I could not do more than two chapters in a single day, never mind that they were only 10-20 pages each. I suppose this would not be a problem if the reader were in no way interested in self-assessment or reflection. Hah.
One thing that did help me move through the book (with hope of finishing, someday) was its clear, logical structure. Maté begins by highlighting the problem in general, then shows how that problem begins at a micro level (before birth—prenatal) but then snowballs to the macro (society, government, etc.). My favorite part was the micro; I saw much of how I was raised and much of how I’ve raised my own children in those chapters…this led to a much broader understanding of my own children’s needs. These were the most critical parts of the book for me, as a mother.
His most powerful chapters Maté saves for last: those that include therapeutic activities to begin one’s healing journey. Chapters 28, 29, and 30 include very specific activities for healing—something I wish more self-help-ish books would offer. Too often, books like this provide theoretical arguments but no concrete steps for improvement; they highlight all the ways we fail but provide no implementable suggestions. This book is designed to help you move forward, not dwell in your misery. The activity proposed in Chapter 28, specifically, was groundbreaking for me: Maté calls it “Before the Body Says No: A Self-Inquiry Exercise.” I wish I’d read/implemented this exercise in 2018, when I was suffering most acutely from anxiety attacks and panic attacks. When I was overthinking, overdrinking, and utterly disconnected from myself, this exercise might’ve pulled me out of that impossible space. I recommend this chapter—on its own even!—to everyone.
Finally, I want to give a nod to the book’s overarching message: there is a tension between authenticity and attachment. If we do not feel we can be attached if we’re authentic, the thing to toss is authenticity, not attachment. But our pathway to wholeness, to health, is authenticity—thus, we must begin there, and from there find attachments that honor our true selves. I really love this message. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to hear in life.
…also maybe now I need to try shrooms.